Keep Kids Creating With ‘The Superhero Comic Kit’!

Kids love to create and come up with some of the most ingenious stories and drawings. They don’t always follow the kind of progression that adults come to expect, and setting them off on their creative journey while they are young will help them continue to be creative as they grow. It’s important to capture this development, but sometimes they (or you) run out of ideas for what to have them do. Continue reading Keep Kids Creating With ‘The Superhero Comic Kit’!

Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge: And Back to School We Go

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Image: Scholastic

It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. Summer is waning. Even here in North Carolina, where the hot season tends to linger a little longer than I’d like, we’ve had hints of autumn. My daughter just started preschool, and my son is back to school next week. But they had some great times this summer—we traveled, we relaxed (well, at least they did), and we immersed ourselves in some great books.

5 Word Book Reviews (or less)

Here are the books that rocked my kids’ summer.

Get in on the Instant Win Action

Image: Energizer

Energizer® and Scholastic are partnering to create the “Power the Possibilities” campaign which gives moms the tools they need to unlock their child’s talents, fuel their ambitions, and set them up for future success. Parents can buy any specially marked pack of Energizer® brand batteries to scratch for a chance to win one of thousands of prizes that will power discovery and learning.

Prizes include a family trip to New York City, a Scholastic Study Corner Makeover, a tablet with Scholastic apps, a library of Scholastic books and more! Everyone who plays can also download free digital stories for their family.

Refrain from Brain Drain

The summer is almost over, but thankfully the Power Up and Read Summer Reading Challenge has you covered. Scholastic’s Maggie McGuire has 5 easy tips for making reading a priority for your child, like setting a weekly minutes goal, reserving special time to read together as a family, and celebrating reading accomplishments. It’s not too late to get your kids reading.

More Reading Resources

Scholastic has joined together with ENERGIZER® to power the 2015 Summer Reading Challenge and encourage families to find innovative ways to discover the power and joy of reading. It’s not too late to take part! Now through September 4th, visit Click the links below for a sampling of the fun resources you’ll find with Scholastic:


Scholastic is a GeekMom sponsor.

The Depths of The Riverman Triology

Image By Farrar Straus Giroux Press

“Aargh!” I yelled.
My son poked his head out of his room, “You finished the second book, right?”
“It’s so good, right?”
“And now we have to wait for the third book!”

This is about The Whisper, the second book in the The Riverman trilogy by Aaron Starmer. My teen son was in-between books, saw The Riverman on our shelf, devoured it, read The Whisper, and asked, “Where’s the third one?” I let him know it wasn’t out yet. That’s when he let out his own sigh of frustration, and then told me to read the books so at least we could discuss them.

These books are ones you will want to talk about.

Now before I get into the ever-moving plot, the complex characters, the imaginative worlds-within-worlds, I want to talk about Starmer’s writing. There are plenty of modern YA authors who are good storytellers, but not so many are good writers. Aaron Starmer is an intelligent writer that paints pictures with his words.

“Cars moved slowly, as if they weren’t really going anywhere. They were nothing but steel wolves, out roaming.”

“The spot where her nose had been broken all those years ago—that knobby bit of cartilage right below her eyes—made me imagine that a tiny asteroid had crashed into her face and had determined the orbit of her life. She probably hated that asteroid, but to me it was essential.”

“Your mind is constantly wishing, even if you don’t realize it.”

In the first book of the series, the main character, twelve-year-old Alistair Cleary, wonders what is real or not; what’s the story behind the story? The reader is waiting along with him. Fiona Loomis, his neighbor, has decided he should write her biography. She tells him about traveling to a magical world where imagination rules, where storytellers can see creations come to life around them, where children are gods. It is called Aquavania.

“In Aquavania you can create anything your mind can think up. You’d be surprised what your mind can’t create. It’s often the things you really need.”

Fiona describes the worlds she creates: creatures, landscapes, impossible things. Then she tells of other children imagining their own ridiculous, outlandish, weird creations. But the story Fiona tells Alistair has a dark edge, and she truly believes children are in danger, including herself. He decides that either Fiona is crazy, or hiding a terrible truth behind the fantasy. Can Alistair keep a secret? Should he? Does he truly understand what is going on? You will be guessing alongside him until the end. The next book ends with another twist to this tale. It’s a great ride.

“Well,” Charlie replied, setting down the controller, “the most powerful monsters are the ones that don’t even seem like monsters. They’re the little things, the soft things that sneak in and haunt you.”
“Ghosts?” Alistair asked. “That might be a good title.”
Charlie shook his head. “Whispers.”

Alistair is one of the most real and likable characters I’ve met in a long time. Too often, writers are unable to create young characters that are both heroic and true to their age. Alistair cares about people, he has a strong sense of right and wrong, and his need to help is genuine. But how to show he cares, seeing the gray areas in choices, and figuring what is the best way to help, are a struggle that is depicted honestly through this young man’s actions, words, and thoughts. His weaknesses frustrate him, but he doesn’t know how to change fast enough to keep up with the problems and events happening all around him. That’s relatable to all ages. Besides Alistair, the novel is full of characters that are conflicted, flawed, changing, and all too recognizable.

“He’s not a bad guy, deep down,” I said.
My dad slipped the key into the door. “Deep down, no one is. But you make choices.”

I recommend this for twelve and up. Kids younger than that can enjoy the story, but much is implied, things get dark, and the headier stuff will be appreciated more by an older reader. I can’t say much about the plot of The Riverman or The Whisper without giving everything away, which makes it hard to review, so you’ll have to trust me (and my son) on this: It’s very, very good.

GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.

Where Will Your Roadmap Take You?

Image: Chronicle Books
Image: Chronicle Books.

What is it that makes you happy?

I came into my own during the What Color Is Your Parachute? generation, or at least at the tail end of it. When I wasn’t sure what to do with my life, career-wise, I got a copy of that book and worked my way through it. It wasn’t much help. See, I didn’t know what made me tick yet. I didn’t know what I was passionate about. I couldn’t even identify my hobbies. One of the hazards about being a Jane of All Trades, Mistress of None, is that your interests and talents aren’t always clearly identified. It is often only clear in hindsight.

I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up until I was in my thirties. Like, my mid-thirties. Now that I’m in my early forties, I know what my short- and long-term life goals are, so I’m pretty well set there. A lot of experimenting and thinking helped me figure it out. But what about my kids? One of them has very clearly defined interests. The other one, definitely not. But both of them can benefit from some direction, some help along the way, and some encouragement to realize that life’s a journey. Everything you do along the way counts.

I recently learned about a book called Roadmap: The Get-It-Together Guide for Figuring Out What to Do With Your Life, by the people who created the documentary series Roadtrip Nation. The book’s premise is that it exists to help people find their own road in life, find one that fits them and their needs, wants, and desires, and is decided upon by both their head and their heart.

The book begins by encouraging people to figure out if they are doing what they do because they want to be doing it, or because everyone else is doing it and it’s what is expected of them. Then it moves on to talk about the external “noises” in life, and helps readers decide which noises to listen to and which to ignore.

Later chapters have titles with clear purposes, such as “Build a Life, Not a Resume,” “Life Is Linear Only in the Rearview Mirror,” “Pursue Your Interests—Not an Occupation,” “Risk or Regret? You Choose,” and “When to Veer and When to U-Turn.” Each chapter includes really useful information about finding your own way in life that helps you create a personally fulfilling path. Dozens of people were interviewed for their stories, and URLs are given for reading more of those people’s experiences. Most chapters also include an exercise or two to help you hone your direction and make good decisions for yourself. Quotations and sidebars also help inspire, and give concrete examples of how you don’t need to have a cookie cutter life—unless that’s what you want, of course.

The back of the book contains seven projects that help you create your own path. The projects include things like blogging your interests, selling your goods and services online, traveling, and talking to someone who is already living your Roadmap. This pretty much describes the route I took to self-discovery, but I had to figure it all out the hard way. This book can be your guide.

This video gives a very small glimpse into the television show, and the idea behind it all.

The book also includes a limited membership to the Roadtrip Nation Interview Archive, where you can watch video interviews with thousands of people who have built their lives around their interests. You access this archive with a special code printed in your book.

This is your life, after all. Not anyone else’s. Live your life for yourself. Don’t live someone else’s life. If you are living your passions and someone tells you that you’re doing it wrong, they obviously don’t know you very well.

Roadmap retails for $14.45 and comes out on April 7. I recommend this book to everyone. Seriously. Everyone. Buy it for yourself. Buy it for your new graduate. Buy it for your high schooler. Buy it for your retiree parents. Finding your own path is that important, and it’s never too late. Our world needs a variety of thinkers and doers. Including you.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Princess Decomposia And Count Spatula

Image By First Second Books

Andi Watson has created a creepy-cute romance with the new graphic novel, Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula. The Princess is overwhelmed taking care of the business of the Underworld while her father convalescences in bed and complains about his food. In comes a pastry chef vampire, Count Spatula, who sees the stress the Princess is under, and tries to help.

Andi was kind enough to answer a few questions about this sweet gothic tale.

GEEKMOM: What was your inspiration for the story and characters?

ANDI WATSON: As always with a book, several different elements have to come together to spark things off. Most importantly I wanted to create a full length graphic novel for the first time in my career, a challenge I hadn’t met after many years of making comics. At first I was a bit intimidated, knowing I’d have to write the whole thing ahead of time, but that became an advantage as I could go back and forth over the course of the story, adding and taking away scenes and dialogue. I loved being able to clearly see the overall shape of the story, something it’s quite hard to do when I’m serialising. The other inspirations came from my sketchbooks. Both Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula had been lurking in the pages in separate stories for years, but neither of their stories worked alone. It was only when I put them together that the book fell into place. I love it when that happens.

GM: Did you see romance right away for the Princess and Count?

ANDI: One of things I wanted to achieve with the book was tell a relationship story, a romance that would be fun to write and draw. I’ve told “real world” romance stories before, and enjoyed writing the dialogue and creating characters. The slight downside is that I’ve found them a bit less fun to draw. It’s often two or more people in a room talking. That’s a real challenge to keep visually interesting, so I wanted to combine a relationship story with a strong visual element and I found I enjoyed drawing the spooky stuff. Having more freedom to play visually and allowing my imagination a bit more of a free reign was a real treat. That the Princess has the cute bat-wing hair and the Count is a vampire made it extra fun to draw. Add to that, designing all the other characters and I had a blast.

GM: The relationship between the Princess and King changes over the course of the book. What’s the message about father/daughter dynamics?

ANDI: Yes, I thought it would be interesting to explore the family dynamics of who’s in charge and who is driving things behind the scenes. The child has adult responsibilities without being allowed her own choices, while the King enjoys power with none of the obligations. The adult is the child and vice-versa. The shape of the story follows how that balance changes. I’m not sure I have a message about father/daughter dynamics, although I am interested in them, being dad to a daughter myself. One thing that strikes you as a parent very early on is how much and how little power you have over your kids. On the one hand you’re completely responsible for every aspect of their lives, on the other you can’t make a child eat, you can’t make them sleep, and you can’t make them stop crying. You are utterly helpless, as any parent with a crying toddler on a long haul flight knows!  As children grow up that divide is less stark but you’re still trying to juggle how much responsibility to give a child and also the anxiety that comes from letting them go little by little. Perhaps this whole book is about my daughter becoming a teenager and my wanting to take to my bed and hide!

GM: The Count’s fun desserts like Mud Monster Cake and Lemon Drizzle Cake were charming to see and imagine the taste! Do you bake? What’s your favorite dessert to make or eat?

ANDI: Yes, I began baking with my daughter when she was little. We both enjoyed making a mess and eating the results. I hadn’t baked since school so it was the perfect way to begin again as the emphasis was on fun and play, not on some exquisitely presented end product. As long as it was edible we were happy. I’ve continued baking over the years, which is why it was a joy to invent the Count’s set-piece desserts. My job was to flick through recipe books and doodle ideas in my sketchbook… it was tough, I tell you. Sadly, my own skills fall well short of the Count’s, but I do enjoy making quick and simple recipes like cookies, rock cakes, fairy cakes and the like. I’ll have a go with fondant icing for birthdays. Past projects have included Minions from Despicable Me and a crash landed Tardis. I also made a traditional Yule log over Christmas that turned out all right. The recipe my family likes best is a chocolate cake with Terry’s Chocolate Orange ganache. Super sweet and easy to make.

GM: Finally, what project are you currently working on?

ANDI: I have a couple of books in the bag, including my webcomic Princess Midnight which finishes up at the end of January. I’ve also finished a graphic novel for grown ups that I’m hoping to find a publisher for. As for brand new stuff, I’ve finished writing another spooky graphic novel that I’ll start drawing and aim to have done by the summer.

GM: Thanks, Andi!

Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula comes out February 24th by First Second. GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.

The Classic Style of Marimekko: In Patterns

Image: Chronicle Books
Image: Chronicle Books

Marimekko is a textile design company based in Helsinki, Finland. Some of their designs, such as Unikko, are quite well known, but there are plenty of more obscure patterns as well. Earlier this year, Unikko celebrated 50 years of being awesome, and the company keeps churning out other inspirational designs.

Marimekko: In Patterns takes us on a behind-the-scenes journey through the process of a Marimekko pattern, start to finish. From sketches to fabric to pattern to color to the final quality check, their style is playful, colorful, and, often, simple. You may look at their patterns and think, “I could design that.” But I challenge you to try. Putting together colors and shapes in a way that will guide style and appeal to the people isn’t an easy task. Not every one of their patterns appeals to me, but that’s part of the beauty of the company: There seems to be something for everyone. Dark, light, colorful, monochromatic, modern, classic, organic, and geometric.

Image: Marimekko
The Unikko pattern. Image: Marimekko

The book also digs deeply into some of their classic patterns and their designers, and it profiles several of Marimekko’s designers individually in more depth. While there is plenty of reading to do in this book, it is mostly filled with the patterns and the art that goes into them. It also shares examples of how the designs are used, in clothes and home decor, and on regular bolts of fabric.

Finally, it goes through its history as a company, from design and fashion in the 1950s until the 2000s, and briefly touches on what they have in store for us in the future.

Marimekko: In Patterns retails for $35 but can be found much cheaper. I recommend it to anyone who has a love of classic style, organic and geometric shapes, or Finnish design. This book will inspire you in your next project, be it painting, sewing, photography, or any other creative pursuit.

GeekMom received a copy of this book for review purposes.

Book Review: Adventure Time: The Art of Ooo

Image Credit: Abrams Books

Over the past couple of weeks my family and I had the pleasure of previewing Adventure Time: The Art of Ooo by Meathaus’s Chris McDonnell, to be released on October 14th. In case you hadn’t noticed here, here, and here, I am in an Adventure Time fandom household. My sons look forward to each new episode, and I have loved seeing my sons’ imaginative play and storytelling that have evolved thanks to this show. These stories demonstrate, time and time again, the power of friendship, even in the darkest times. This gorgeous full-color hardcover book will grace coffee tables with elegance.

Yes, you heard right, with elegance.

Even though you might know Adventure Time as a bit dark with its post-apocalyptic themes, my family and I can’t get over how lovely the artwork is. Perhaps you are a fan of the Cartoon Network series and wondered what the writers and artists were thinking with some of the whimsical story arcs and creative artistic rendering…

The Art of Ooo will put everything in perspective for you. The book presents a behind-the-scenes look at the art and storyboards, the writers’ thoughts behind the characters, and interviews with those who voice the characters on the TV show. From concept art to the more sophisticated story lines, you will enjoy over 350 pages and 500 color images.

After an introduction by Mexican fantasy filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, the book starts with a biography of the show’s creator and principal animator, Pendleton Ward. You learn that his cartoonist influences came from a variety of seemingly-basic artwork: The Simpsons, Beavis & Butthead, and Doug. You also learn about one of his earliest pieces: Bueno the Bear, whose ears strike quite the resemblance to Finn’s hat.

You then get to learn about the process of pitching the cartoon to Nickelodeon (who had aired one of the earliest episodes on their Random! Cartoons series in 2008), and then to Cartoon Network. You are shown the complete “pitch bible,” and then the 11-minute storyboard of the pilot episode, “The Enchiridion!”

My youngest son pages through this book every evening while it sits at the center of my coffee table. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

From here, readers will learn about the development of the main title sequence, and then delve into details about each of the characters, starting with Finn and Jake and then taking readers into the backstories of BMO, the Ice King, Princess Bubblegum, and Earl of Lemongrab. You will learn about the details behind the development of Ooo, in terms of settings and colors. This volume will go into such specific settings as the Treehouse and the dungeons.

You will then see concept art, storyboards, and backstories with many of our favorite episodes: “Card Wars” (about which an iOS and Android game exists), “Bad Timing,” “Food Chain,” and “Lady & Peebles” to name a few.

The final chapter, “Beyond Ooo,” is a tribute to Adventure Time‘s fans. Page after page of fan art gets space in this book, with accounts of fans’ tattoos, graffiti, and fan fiction. I made a point to show this chapter to my youngest son, who has quite a bit of Adventure Time fan fiction floating around the house.

Adventure Time: The Art of Ooo, is published by Abrams and will make a fantastic gift for any Adventure Time fan in your life. The book retails for $35, but is priced at about $25 at Amazon.

GeekMom received this product for review purposes.

Color and Explore With Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book

Photo: Laurence King Publishing
Photo: Laurence King Publishing

Coloring isn’t just for kids. Sometimes we grown-ups need our artsy time. Sometimes we doodle, sometimes we make crafts. But there’s something so meditative and simple about coloring in areas delineated by black lines. And when those black lines are a work of art in and of themselves, even better.

I recently discovered Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book by Johanna Basford. The line drawings in this book are so beautiful, I was drawn to them right away. To start, the book cover is filled with ink drawings of plants, flowers, bees, butterflies, and more, all intricately woven together. Occasional flowers and more boast gold foil to set them off. You can take the cover off of the book and color the inside, if you like, because it is drawn in such a way as to invite coloring in.

Photo: Laurence King Publishing
Photo: Laurence King Publishing

The book itself is a brown paperback with more black ink of plants and bugs, and is filled with a backyard of wonderment. Each new scene or shape has little critters hiding, so while you color in the leaves, flowers, and branches, you can also search for frogs, butterflies, bees, birds, keys, snails, and even a treasure chest. (The answer key is in the back.) Some of the pages guide your drawing and coloring, encouraging you to draw song birds or plants, while others are mostly already filled in, and ache for your choice of color. There are mazes in which to get lost. A treehouse. A peacock. Topiaries. A backyard. A flower garden. A wreath. A lantern. Plenty more.

Photo: Laurence King Publishing
Photo: Laurence King Publishing

While Secret Garden is certainly appropriate for slightly older kids who know how to color in the lines when they need to, it is also perfect for grown-ups who love to color fine drawings and who long for nature. The book will encourage you to draw, color, and imagine.



Reminding me a bit of Zentangles, this book is gorgeous to look at, and is an oh so pleasant place to spend some time. The author’s bio is short and sums up her work very succinctly: “Johanna Basford is an illustrator and ink evangelist who creates intricate and hand-drawn illustrations rooted in the flora and fauna that surrounds her home in rural Scotland.”

Photo: Laurence King Publishing
Photo: Laurence King Publishing

Following the Secret Garden theme, there are journals, postcards, and notecards also available. I was able to see the notecards, which come in a hinged box of 12, patterned after the book. The box is covered in black and white foliage patterns with occasional gold foil thrown in. Inside, there are four styles of card, with designs in circle (with a peacock), square (with a well), heart, and tree shapes. The notecards, while meant for sharing these beautiful images via postal mail, are also suitable (in my opinion) for framing, colored in or not.

Secret Garden and the notecards each retail for $14.95. They are beautiful and are just waiting for you, or someone you love, to add color or lines to the pages.

Note: I received these products for review purposes.

The Return of Zita Wins

Image by First Second
Image by First Second

I read the final book in the Zita trilogy with excitement and a little sadness. Zita the Spacegirl is one of my favorite graphic novels out there: The main character is a girl who is full of courage and kindness, the story brings in such an array of different personalities in both friends and enemies, the plot moves at a great pace, and the artwork and dialogue make my kids and me giggle.

In The Return of Zita the Spacegirl, our young heroine is a prisoner in chains, being charged with “crimes” she did (but for the right reasons…?), persecuted by a corrupt government. Her beloved Mouse is going to be executed. A hooded figure appears, friend or foe? But before anyone can save her, she is stripped of her Strong Strong star, and chucked into a dungeon with only a pile of rags and a skeleton in the corner.

A children’s book? Absolutely! The artwork makes even the nastiest of villains kinda cute, and there is no doubt that Zita will triumph somehow. And that pile of rags and skeleton? Her newest friends! The pile of rags has been in that dungeon so long it evolved into a very nice life form, and the skeleton is more than happy to chat with someone new and offer its fingers and toes as keys to escape. In fact, those two characters develop and change during this story to become a duo my son and I found compelling and sweet.

That’s what this series is all about: You never know what to expect, and Zita doesn’t either. Yet, she knows that friends don’t give up on each other, and everyone should help the helpless, and her conviction changes the universe and every adorable creature she meets.

I’m sad the series is coming to a close, but can’t wait to read what Ben Hatke has in the works next. Plus, my nieces are finally old enough to be introduced to Zita! I get to start from the beginning and share the story of this strong girl facing the silly and unexpected with strength and love.

The Return of Zita will be available in May from First Second. GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.

This One Summer: Beauty In Realism

Image By First Second

This One Summer is a new graphic novel by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. It is a YA book that transcends the genre into where most adult novelists wish they could go: honest and nuanced characters in that familiar world you forgot to cherish. The details of a summer beach town, and two girls on the brink of teen, may not be your memories, but the yearnings, confusion, and relationships certainly will reveal half-buried reminisces.

Stories can be told in many ways, but this one is a perfect example of the depth of the graphic novel. Unlike a book of text, the artwork speaks on a level beyond even what the characters appreciate. Unlike a movie, you control the pacing, the ability to linger on that moment of perfect dialogue.

Here is an interview with the creators of This One Summer.

What was the inspiration behind the story and characters of This One Summer? Was there a specific place (or places) that inspired the illustrations?

MT: Originally, my inspiration was my own cottage setting, in Northern Ontario, near a town called Penetanguishene. That was the location of the original corner store, although just about every cottage has something like that, I think, a local place with little to no merchandise that smells like suntan lotion.

For research, though, we were very lucky that Jillian had a friend with a gorgeous cottage up in a similar area, Muskoka. We did what you would call a little research tour up into that area the summer after the script was done and it was very inspiring, and relaxing.

The characters are mostly a mix of people I’ve met in my adult life, not so much the people I knew when I was little and at my own cottage. I’m definitely paying more attention to teens and pre-teens as an adult than I was as a kid. As a kid they were mostly a blur.

Although the main characters are pre-teen girls, dealing with their own friendship and parents, the reader also encounters issues of teen pregnancy and infertility. I see this book for a large age range. When creating the book, did you have a specific age of reader in mind?

MT: I try and keep a story in mind more than a reader. I would hope this is a book that could be read by a wide range of people, and I would guess that they would all probably hone in on different parts of the story.

JT: I think it can trip one up to try to create specifically for certain age groups. Mariko and both naturally gravitate to stories and treatments that appeal to both teen and adult audiences and have been lucky to have publishers that don’t push us into publishing categories. I think kids like stuff with a bit of edge to them anyway.

What do you hope the reader takes at the end of the story?

MT: At the best of times my favorite books are both familiar and a kind of discovery. I hope it evokes for some people some memories of summer times, which are such amazing, if sometimes complex, memories. I hope it’s also a chance to think about all the different kinds of stories and connections that can exist in a small space. Plus I hope some people get lost in it a bit. I love when books do that.

JT: I hope to convey the emotion and sensory feelings of summer, which is both very sweet and melancholy because it’s fleeting. Also the idea of adolescence and seeing things with new eyes. Situations. Relationships. Your family. You develop a sense of nostalgia.

The often harsh dialogue is paced perfectly with the timing of expressions, or a focus on something else in the scene creating beauty in ordinary reality. Was every moment planned out in a script, or did it evolve with the art?

MT: Nothing visual is really planned out in the script.  Sometimes there’s a little setting or some objects that feel part of the story, but all that timing and those moments where text meets illustration is all Jillian.

What writers and artists inspire you?

MT: Writer wise? Alice Munro, Timothy Findley, Lynn Coady, and John Green for writing. I’m a big fan of Jeff Lemire, Kate Beaton, Lisa Hanawalt, and Hellen Jo for comics and illustration.

JT: For this book: Alice Munro, Ghibli/Miyazaki… I dunno, that question always befuddles me. How do you isolate what influences a work that takes place over the course of 3 years? Real life. Memory. Our visit to Northern Ontario were all more influential.

I recommend This One Summer for ages 12 and up. The book comes out in May from First Second.

Book Review: All Joy and No Fun

Image: Ecco/Little, Brown Book Group UK

This book arrived at the perfect time for me, as my parenting confidence was at an all-time low. As a family, we’re adjusting to a new baby who abhors continuous sleep, plus a four-year-old who is currently specializing in challenging behavior. I knew that lack of sleep colors everything negatively, but I was starting to feel like I wasn’t really doing a great job. What I needed was reassurance that my feelings were normal, that other people find this parenting lark as difficult as me. Could All Joy and No Fun really help me understand my feelings about parenting?

The book grew from an article exploring why parents have been observed to be no happier than non-parents, and sometimes are considerably less happy. Children are supposed to fill our lives with unending joy and happiness, so why aren’t parents happier? Guiding us through a selection of reasons why this might be the case, author Jennifer Senior expands on the idea that actually, parenting is a difficult job, especially in modern times, and explores different ways that parents are dealing with these issues. Where this books differs from many of the other scientifically-based parenting books available is that the author looks at research on how children affect their parents, rather than the other way around. She pulls together research from a range of scientific papers, interspersed with interviews with parents from broadly middle-class backgrounds. This makes the text accessible and interesting, as it allows the reader to see how their experiences are similar. I certainly identified with stories of attempting to negotiate with a recalcitrant child and trying to balance the needs of my children with my own needs as a person, not just a mother.

One area which really struck a chord for me is that Senior explains that there is no real way to prepare for a baby. You can paint the nursery and buy a crib, but until the baby arrives, there’s no predicting exactly what looking after an infant entails. This “Transition to Parenthood” is abrupt and can be traumatic, not even taking into account the physical effects of childbirth on the mother. This was very true for me personally. I’d never looked after a baby or even changed a diaper before my daughter arrived. Although I understood the basic concept, the actual day-to-day reality of infant childcare was a shock, especially the lack of sleep. Moving far away from my family has meant that I don’t have relatives available to give me a break, and my friends have children of their own to manage. This puts more pressure onto parents—how can you cope if you don’t have the metaphorical village to help you?

Another aspect which I found interesting was the fact that the trend is for first babies to be born to older mothers. At 33 when my first was born, I wasn’t the youngest in my antenatal class, but neither was I the oldest. At that point, I’d had 12 years after finishing university where I had been an independent adult with my own life and hobbies. Suddenly, along came someone who completely subsumed me and took away my autonomy. Senior suggests that this is more of a shock when you are used to your independence, and that younger parents might find this transition easier. I think that this is something that is even harder for us geeks. We are passionate about things, our hobbies define us in some ways, and they tend to take up a great deal of our free time. For me, my darkroom became a nursery, the time to draw or photograph became consumed by the needs of my infant, and my spinning wheel became dusty in the corner of a room. When I do try to balance my need to be creative with the needs of my children, I find I’m constantly interrupted and unable to reach the state of flow in which the creative activity will actually have a restorative effect.

Flow, that lovely feeling when you’re “in the zone” as athletes describe it, is when you are so engrossed in a task that time seems to stretch and bend. Geeky hobbies, by their very nature, tend to be time-intensive and when your free time is split into two-minute chunks by interruptions, it can be more frustrating than relaxing. For example, some of this article was written on my phone, in the dark, while trying to convince my seven-month-old son that it was time to sleep. This type of interruption to your thoughts can leave you feeling like your life before children has been completely swept away, which is a difficult feeling to cope with.

I particularly enjoyed the sections which talked about how some childhood behavior can be explained by the way that their brains are developing. Biologically, children have an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. This section of brain, which is placed just behind the forehead, controls the organization of thought, allows adults to focus on tasks, allows us to plan, and controls inhibitions. No wonder children are so different, as their brains have not yet developed the functions which we as adults consider to be normal. Even though I see this as a teacher and work round it in my lessons, to understand that some of the things which my daughter does that are so infuriating can be explained through the development of her brain was a revelation. It takes the pressure off a little. It’s not our bad parenting which is causing the behavior, four-year-olds really are just like that!

Although this is not a book of advice, one thing which really helped me was that Senior describes a theory of “ego depletion,” which explains why tempers can fray so easily. Suggested by psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and columnist John Tierny, it argues that self-control is a limited resource, so that the more you try to hold yourself together in the face of annoyance, the more likely you are to explode at the next infraction. As a teacher, I’ve always been proud of my ability to hold my temper when dealing with children and their annoyances, but recently I’ve found it harder to do that at home. As well as stressing for me how important it is for me to create time for myself, if only two minutes to have a cup of tea while the baby explores a new toy or takes one of his short naps, this theory explains why tempers become more frayed in the evenings in our house. It clarified for me that it’s easier to take a deep breath and not explode at yet another difficult episode with our four-year-old in the morning when we’re rested and have topped up that self-control somewhat overnight.

The interviews with parents are also enlightening. We see parents coping with shift work and young children while trying to divide the workload fairly, parents trying to work from home, and parents trying to deal with the way that their adolescents are moving towards adulthood. One of the most moving parts is the story of Sharon Bartlett, who had adopted her grandson Cameron after his mother had died. Sharon was incredibly committed to Cameron and when she was sadly diagnosed with brain cancer, her only thoughts were for Cameron’s welfare. It shows that parenthood is a broad brush; it comes in all colors and flavors. Sharon embraced the parenthood of a young child again, if only for a short while, and that made Cameron’s life all the richer for it.

This is a very readable book, which covers much more ground than I’ve been able to mention here. I can see myself coming back in years to come to reread the sections about adolescents and the way that their parents are coping, for example. It’s helped me think about parenting in a wider context, particularly how attitudes to children have changed as children are no longer expected to work to support the family. I don’t normally highlight books, but whole passages in my Kindle version are yellow, which says a lot about how much impact this book has had with me.

On the joy side of things, Senior describes the “bursts of grace” which pepper the child-rearing experience. These have been a saving grace for me. I try and burn them onto my brain, so that I can recall them when times are more difficult. The time when my son fell asleep in my arms, smiling, while a Chopin étude played, my daughter’s first steps, and when she said she loved me to the moon and back one hundred times. I’m cutting myself a little more slack these days, and trying to remember that my daughter’s underdeveloped prefrontal cortex is causing her outbursts, not my actions. I read the last chapter of this book in the dark while feeding my son to sleep, his warm smooth fingers holding onto my arm. These are the moments that make things worth it, and it’s these I’m holding onto as my parenting journey continues.

All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood is available now.

For more GeekMom views on parenting and parenting books, have a look at 13 Things That Change When You Go From Geek Girl to Geek MomThere’s More To A Tantrum Than You Realize, and Life With a Spirited Child: A Geek Perspective.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Fangirl is Three Stories in One (and They All Have Strong Female Characters!)

Fangirl © Rainbow Rowell/Pan Macmillan
Fangirl © Rainbow Rowell/Pan Macmillan

For me, nothing beats the times when I’m reading a book and I really, truly, identify with a character. It’s a fairly rare occurrence but when it does happen the bond you form with this fictional person can be intense. Rachel Rowell’s latest young adult novel, Fangirl, had that effect on me.

Fangirl is the story of Cath, an 18-year-old freshman starting her college life at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Cath is a geek and very comfortable in that role. She is obsessed, completely so, by the fictional world of Simon Snow, a book series that bares more than a passing resemblance to the Harry Potter series. Cath is a popular fan fiction author with readers numbering in the tens of thousands, but now she has to find a way to balance completing her epic fanfic Carry On Simon with completing her first year of college. Of course her path isn’t easy. Numerous challenges are thrown in her way including boys, roommates, her manic-depressive dad, and her twin sister Wren who is rapidly going off the rails—and that’s before we get to her actual classes.

Fangirl could easily become something of a cliche, but the dual worlds Rainbow Rowell creates—Cath’s real world and Simon Snow’s World of Mages—are so believable and detailed that you end up falling right in. In between each chapter from Cath’s life, Rainbow throws in snippets from the World of Mages. There are passages from the seven-book canon series (the events in Fangirl occur over the months prior to the eighth and final book’s publication) and excerpts from Cath’s fanfics; there’s even a snippet from a Newsweek article about the rise of the Simon Snow fandom. It’s all mixed in so perfectly that I found myself forgetting that the Simon Snow series doesn’t really exist—I wanted to know how his story ended too.

Art, Wren, Cath, Levi, Reagan & Nick © Noelle Stevenson/Pan Macmillan
Art, Wren, Cath, Levi, Reagan, & Nick © Noelle Stevenson/Pan Macmillan

However, the heart of the Fangirl story is Cath. I identified heavily with her in a way that I rarely have with other fictional characters and on more than just the superficial “oh I prefer to stay home writing fanfic rather than going out partying too” level. Cath comes from a troubled home, but, unlike many tragic backstories, hers doesn’t overwhelm her. She has a loving, close-knit family, just one that’s been through the ringer a little. She is thoroughly likeable without being a doormat and I was happy to see her progress through college life without it changing the fundamentals of who she is. This could easily become a lesson about choosing to live in the “real” world rather than hiding in a beloved fictional one; instead it is about finding the right balance between the two.

One final thing I loved about Fangirl was the sheer quantity of female characters present. Not only do we have Cath, a female protagonist, but we also meet her roommate Reagan, sister Wren, mother Laura, Wren’s roommate Courtney, and Professor Piper. This is in contrast to the two main characters who are male with another two lurking on the sidelines. Even in the world of Simon Snow the number of named female characters equals the boys and Simon’s two best friends (his Ron and Hermione if you like) are both female. It’s really refreshing to read something with such a variety of female characters and I was delighted to see that Cath’s idolized fiction writing professor, who is also a published author, was a woman.

Fangirl is an easy read but it is one that will make you want to keep reading. I fell in love, both with Cath and with her beloved World of Mages, and I wanted their stories to keep going. This is the perfect book for any fangirls you know who are heading to college this year; in fact it’s the perfect story for fangirls of any age. Rainbow Rowell has recently signed a contract to publish some graphic novels and casually dropped the suggestion on her website that “a Simon Snow comic would be so much fun to write.” I for one would love to see that come to fruition because I hope we might get to read more from these two universes one day.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Chronicles: Art & Design

Image: Amazon.
Book Cover: Harper Design

Are you looking for a last-minute gift idea for your favorite Tolkien-fan-geek? Look no further than your favorite bookstore for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Chronicles: Art & Design by the Weta Workshop, the Wellington, New Zealand special effects company behind the beauty of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies.

If you are as fascinated by the settings, costumes, and art design as I am, this is the perfect book. It’s a large hard-cover book perfect for prominent display. The high-quality glossy pages are filled with vibrant storyboard pictures, costume design renderings, and short vignettes by the art and design crew members about the senses they were attempting to convey as you progress through the story of The Desolation of Smaug. You will feel the set and costume designers’ passion for the roles they played in the film’s production.

The book is arranged based on the chapters of the original pages of The Hobbit, although, as I’d mentioned in my review of the film earlier this week, there are some plot diversions. These are addressed as well.

Enjoy the behind-the-scenes journeys through Lonely Mountain, Lake-town, Long Lake, the Woodland Realm, and Mirkwood as you learn about Weta’s motivations in design. For example, readers will learn about Lake-town’s Tibetan and Scandinavian influences.

Each of the book’s 208 pages is filled with beautiful storyboards and costume design drawings. Enjoy Legolas here in all his glory! Image: Weta Workshop.

This book makes an outstanding companion to the film; its intended audience is someone who has already read the book and/or seen the film. There are spoilers in the book, so be sure your gift recipient knows the story already!

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Chronicles: Art & Design retails for $39.99 and is available at book retailers nationwide, to include Amazon.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Whoosh Into the World of Room on the Broom

Room on the Broom menu screen
The Room on the Broom app uses the fabulous illustrations from the book.
© Magic Light Pictures

Is there room on the broom for an app like this?

With Halloween approaching, I have been pulling out books to read to my daughter which fit the season. We’ve enjoyed Neil Gaiman and Gris Grimly’s Dangerous Alphabet, Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul’s Winnie the Witch, and of course, Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s Room on the Broom. We love the fantastic rhyming tale of the rather clumsy witch, battling against the elements and a hungry dragon to keep hold of her belongings and her familiars. The book has already been translated into a film and stage version, but would it work well as an app?

The app makes great use of Alex Scheffler’s illustrations, meaning that it really feels like the book has come alive. Rather than an interactive version of the book, instead the app extends the book with a series of eight games designed to develop memory and observation skills. There is the opportunity to earn bronze, silver, and gold medals for meeting challenges in each game, which I thought was a nice touch as this ramps up the difficulty very gradually, making things more accessible for children at the younger end of the suggested 3-7 age range. Some of the games are simple point and click challenges where children have to find a hidden object from the story, such as the witch’s hat or wand. Other games are more challenging, such as the game where children have to spot the correct letters and steer the magnificent broom over them to create words from the story. My daughter’s favorite game involves setting out stars into patterns that are then joined by the witch on her broomstick. The stars can be moved around to create all sorts of patterns and pictures. I thought that this could be an interesting game to use from a more educational and problem solving angle, as children could use the stars to draw letters or numbers such as this “m for mummy” which my daughter created.

Drawing with stars
My daughter created an M using the drawing with stars game.
Screenshot: Helen Barker

As well as the unmistakable illustrations, the app also uses music from the film version to add to the atmosphere. It’s been really nicely done and captures the mood of the book really well. There’s lots here to keep children interested and coming back for more, making the £2.99/$4.99 price good value. My daughter loved playing with the app and it is already one of her favorites. I think this app will keep her attention long past Halloween.

The Room on the Broom app is available for £2.99 from the iTunes App Store or Google Play and Amazon stores for Android. You can visit the Room on the Broom website for more information, including links to purchase the app as well as hints for the games.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Talk Like a Pirate Day: When Pirates Get Sad

Image By Rebecca Angel
Image By Rebecca Angel

My niece is an intense, sweet girl who loves pirates. She and I often play pirates together. She and I also hug a lot because her emotions can be overwhelming. For her sixth birthday, I wrote her a pirate story giving her tools to try when she’s feeling sad. I asked my son Luke to draw some cute stick figures for illustrations.

There is a famous pirate tune I’m playing in the background of this video. Can you guess it?


Sookie Scores the Plot

Deadlocked cover
Image By Penguin Group

There’s this little series on HBO called True Blood. You might have heard of it. You may have even heard it’s based on a series of books. But who has time to read when there’s great sex and gore on TV?

Find. The. Time.

Charlaine Harris‘ series about Sookie Stackhouse has been one of my favorite since before HBO grabbed onto it. (Yeah, I got cred, baby.) I remember seeing the cover art for Dead to the World at my local library years ago and being intrigued; I was bored with the artistic style of most fantasy covers. Then I read the back. Vampire romance? Mystery? Bleh. Not my thing. I challenged myself to read some of it just to prove that I didn’t want to read it. The fact that it was the fourth book in the series would almost guarantee I wouldn’t like it.

My subconscious knew what it was doing. The book was sexy, fun, had an intriguing plot, and the heroine kicked ass while still managing to be a down-to-earth woman trying to make sense of it all. I quickly went back to my library for the first three books, and then waited for more. Along with Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden Files, this is my favorite fantasy series.

But something changed in the Sookie books later on. Bad things always happened to the main character, but now really bad stuff started to happen, and she wasn’t able to bounce back. Sookie reacted very much like a real person. Unfortunately, it gave the series a darker tone (and we started with vampires, so that’s saying a lot). I blame it on Hurricane Katrina making the author sad. I heard Charlaine Harris speak about Deadlocked, on the radio. She said at one point in the series she started adding all these new elements because she had started to become bored. And when that didn’t help she realized it was time to end it all. There will be one more book and that’s that for Sookie.

The series began with lots of romance, gripping mystery, rounded characters, and some yippee sex scenes. With Deadlocked we have an intense mystery, fully-developed characters, and relationship issues. I read the book in a day, unable to put it down because Harris knows how to write plot. But I miss the romance, and the sex used to be so good. Sigh…

Still, I can’t wait to read the next one.

Hammer of Witches

TU Books


“My uncle’s meaningful stare pierced right through me. “Dashed off, leaving a child in my arms.”                                                                                 By that time in my life, I’d heard enough fairy tales to know what a sentence like that meant. Until then, though, I’d never known what it felt like to be part of such a story. The end of my uncle’s tale was so obvious, so inevitable, and yet I could hardly believe the words.”

Hammer of Witches by Shana Mlawski is all about stories: fairy tales, religious texts, and history. She takes what we know of Columbus’ voyage to America  and uses it as the backdrop about a boy learning the power of words, and the magic behind the meaning of stories. It’s a good book.

Historical fantasy is not a genre I have read before. The heroic tale of Columbus that I learned in school was soured by the brutal reality when I learned about that same voyage as an adult. After her fictional tale ends, Mlawski takes several pages to explain what parts in the book were based on historians best guesses of what really happened, and what she played around with for the sake of a good yarn. I’m impressed with how much truth she wove into a story filled with witches, genies, and magic!

Set in 1492 Spain, Baltasar Infante is our hero, and he’s an optimistic, chatty teen boy with multiple layers to his own story; a story he learns about slowly as the book progresses. Baltasar has grown up under the threat of the Malleus Maleficarum, a mysterious witch-hunting arm of the Spanish Inquisition. His parents were Christian converts, once Jews, but killed by the Inquisition. Yet he learns that he is part Muslim as well. This blending of faiths, and the stories they hold, is a source of conflict and ultimately strength for Baltasar. But this is not a book about religion, it’s a book of adventure and magic.

Through a series of events, Baltasar must go on the run to avoid the Malleus Maleficarum, and to destroy or be destroyed by the hero-turned-traitor Amir al-Katib. He joins Columbus’ crew to find a new sea passage to Cathay. Baltasar learns that he has the magic to summon creatures at will, but only creatures from stories he knows, and to summon them takes an intimate understanding of the truths within them. Yet, he learns there are many interpretations to the same story, and many truths that can be hard to accept. But he has a genie named Jinniyah to help him, and eventually a cool friend named Catalina, a fellow magic user.

Mlawski’s prose is fluid and colorful. The characters grow, and the story is unique within the setting of familiar history. I am always interested in new takes on magic, and the idea of understanding tales as the source of power really appealed to me. I recommend Hammer of Witches for junior high and up.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Master Davey and The Magic Tea House: Save the Special Tea

Image By Booksicals

As a tea geek that loves to share my obsession with the young’uns in my life, I was excited to review Master Davey and The Magic Tea House: Legend of the Blue Tiger written by Susan Chodakiewitz and David De Candia, and illustrated by Kent Yoshimura.

The art is a treat! Bright colors with dancing swirls and paper cut-out patterns are the heart of this fable. Every page shows the main action, but there are details everywhere to keep children going back and discovering more (kind of like savoring the multiple flavors in a cup of tea). I wish I could read Chinese characters because every person in this story has one drawn on their ear and I want to know what they mean! I’ll have to ask a friend. There is even a game within the book to find hidden (English) words; enter them online at the site to unlock more fun. Plus, there’s a unique tea blend that goes with the book.

In this fable the hero must overcome three problems to save the day. We start off in Master Davey’s tea shop, which I totally want to visit. Master Davey encourages the main character, Hopper, to explore the complex and imaginative flavors of the teas he serves.

“What do you smell Hopper? What do you smell?”

“A bouquet of flowers…and a summer breeze…”

One brew, Blue Tiger Tea, is the most precious of teas and will be lost to the world forever due to pest problems in the one field where it grows in China. Through the magic of tea, Hopper is able to travel to China where he meets Camellia, whose family has no more seeds to plant. Together they travel to magical places where Hopper uses his courage to finally meet the Blue Tiger and get more seeds, helping Camellia’s family replant the special tea.

I enjoyed reading this book to my two young nieces. My only issue was gender. Stereotypically, the most powerful characters in the story are male (Hopper and the Blue Tiger), and the legend that is repeated several times is, “a boy that will save the Blue Tiger Tea.” While reading it to them, I changed “boy” to “child” so my listeners could at least imagine themselves as heroes in this story.

They were captivated by the art, and the phrase, “two leaves and a bud”—reference to the parts of the tea plant Hopper and Camellia help pick—stuck in my four-year-old niece’s head. Afterwards, my nieces and I picked our own tea (several mints, lemon balm, and lime-basil from my garden) and my littlest niece skipped along with a basket repeating her phrase over and over happily. We all went inside and had a tea party, revisiting our favorite pages of this lovely book.

Master Davey and the Magic Tea House will be available September 1, 2013.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Stormdancer: The Lotus War Book One

Thomas Dunne Books
Thomas Dunne Books

Japanese steampunk. Yeah, I said Japanese steampunk. Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff is a dystopian feudal Japan setting with Iron Samurai wielding chainsaw katanas. Chainsaw katanas.

The world of Shima was once bound with nature and the spirits, but the destructive spiral of industrialization , war and corruption, has polluted the land to the brink of unsustainable collapse. The Lotus Guild, the ruthless clockwork makers, are in a tense tug of power with the sadistic Shogun.

After the first couple of chapters I had to share how cool the setting was with my fourteen year old son. His eyes grew wide at the seamless blending of traditional Japan with gears and piston engines.

“Was Japan like that at all?” He asked. And then I launched into how Japan was forced into the industrial world via Commodore Perry. This led to me waxing poetically about the movie The Last Samurai, going on and on until we talked about what it would be like if aliens invaded and we had to adapt to such foreign technology, etc, etc. Until I realized my son was using this conversation as an excuse to stop doing his homework. Back to work! And I got back to my book…

Stormdancer is like a great kung-fu movie, where violence really can solve most of your problems. The heroine Yukiko is compassionate: she saves puppies and gives her last coins to a beggar woman. But Yukiko is also brave and will never stop fighting; even as she slips into unconsciousness, she is groping for her knife. Yukiko can slice your up, and if she somehow can’t, then her freakin’ THUNDER TIGER will!

That’s the best part of this book, the growing relationship between Buruu, a mythological thunder tiger, and Yukiko. It is done at a beautiful pace.  The stormdancer fight scene (not going to explain that further so as not to ruin it for you) is the highlight of the book. I actually put the book down to imagine it again in slow motion. So cool.

The plot is revenge on the small scale, and complete governmental destruction on the larger plan of the series. The body count is incredibly high in this book, and so many characters die, I was getting concerned of who would be around for the rest of the series. The bad guys are really, really evil. They are so evil that you know there is only one option: cold, very bloody, horrible death.

This is not a book about nuance. Like I said, it is a well-done kung-fu movie, but with a female heroine, and a detailed new fantasy setting. That said, there is one side character that seemed less legendary, more real: Kin. He is a guildsman, one of the makers of the industry, but he is struggling to break free of his metal skin. Will he be able to? Not sure, but I’m curious about his journey.

This book is upper YA for violence. My son wanted me to just tell him the basic story instead of reading the bloody details himself. I picked up the book at my local book store because I completely judge a book by its cover and the artwork is truly cool. Exciting read!

Art, Sex and Beautiful Men

Relying on seductive art to draw in your audience is akin to a comedian swearing. It doesn’t take skill to get a reaction.

There have been several recent posts GeekMom and elsewhere about the sexualization of women in comics. Although that’s nothing new, female geeks are finally getting fed up- realizing that being loyal and vocal fans does not grant any respect in the industry.

The discussions on the internet got me thinking about a conversation I had last summer with an artist friend of mine. We were on our way back from ConnectiCon where he had worked with his art and enjoyed chatting with other artists. He excitedly told me about a woman next to him who showed him her “boobie pictures.” Her out-front display was cartoon cats, but she showed him her Adults Only folder with mostly women in sexy poses with big breasts. She encouraged him to display his own “boobie pictures” because they’re fun to draw and sell really well. She said both women and men like pictures of sexy, naked women.

He then waxed poetically about the female figure in fine art, explaining to me how the female form is universally recognized as most beautiful. He talked about slope, curve, and roundness, about masters in the art world, and famous paintings and sculptures. He has a degree in Fine Art and I had no reason to doubt him.

The following day I departed to teach at a teen music camp up in the Adirondacks. The conversation with my friend would not leave me, and I realized I disagreed. However, I’m a musician, what do I know about art? But as the week progressed, I couldn’t let it go.

At a break time by the beach, I informed a fellow counselor about the whole thing. I explained that I don’t find the female form to be any more beautiful than the male form, in fact, I think men are MORE beautiful than women. Why? Because I’m freakin’ attracted to them- duh! And if the masters of the art world, and the majority of art teachers are straight men, then they are going to believe that women are more beautiful because they are attracted to them. Isn’t that obvious? Why should art have all these depictions of naked women? I shouted loudly, “I want more naked men!”

My counselor friend chuckled softly, and slightly uncomfortably. Perhaps this was because we were currently next to cavorting teens of both sexes in swimwear. Did I mention this was a Catholic music camp?

Anyway, comics are just the latest incarnation of the oldest way to show a story (music is the oldest way to tell a story.) I appreciate art with an uneducated eye. This does not devalue my opinion in any way. I know this because the value of an uneducated musician’s opinion is very worthy to me when I write my own music. If someone doesn’t like it, I don’t care how many degrees they have.

Comics are obviously marketed towards men. The covers are to attract the twelve year-old, straight boy’s eye. Do men purchase because of hyper-sexed women and powerful men bursting out of the pages? I know I purchase despite the covers, hoping there’s a good story inside, and wondering why a woman fighter would ever have that much skin exposed. Is it eye-catching? Of course. So is this:

Another Back By Akseru

Would I purchase a novel solely on this cover? My stereotypes tell me this would be called Fields of Passion. And unless the hot guy on the cover is going to come out of the book and snuggle with me while I’m reading, I wouldn’t buy it. I like plot (call me wacky) and many books geared towards women, the ones with hot men on the cover, are sorely lacking in it. That is why I pick up stories with a scantily dressed woman on the cover calling down lightning.

If I told a heterosexual man that Fields of Passion was a gripping tale he really would enjoy, would he try it out? Would he hide the book from friends? Do women hide the “boobie pictures” spilled on our favorite comics? It is taught in library school that girls will read a book with a boy or girl on the cover. Boys are rarely drawn to books with a girl on the cover.

So men only care about stories involving women if they are seducing them?

And women just want a good story?

The picture above is a sexy picture I found while perusing deviantart (some people watch YouTube videos, I browse artwork.) The Greeks believed the male form was the most perfect (and this is not because Greeks were fine with being gay; homosexual practices depended on the city-state) and women were rarely depicted in the nude until late in the age. Why don’t we acknowledge that any human body can be made beautiful by a skilled artist?

But you know, I don’t need a skin shot to catch my eye. All you need is a talented artist who can capture a moment, and I want to know more.

Unison IV By Lukas Sowada

Do I really want more naked men in graphic novels? If the scene requires it- I’m more than happy to drink in the sight. For that matter, I don’t mind looking at a beautifully drawn naked woman. Sex is part of life, a part of stories- a very exciting part! But if it doesn’t follow the plot, then no thank you.

Are the top graphic artists so talentless that they can’t create eye-catching, beautiful art without sex attached- women and sex to be specific?

I am not an artist, but I love art. I love beauty. I love stories.

Don’t give me swear words.

Disney’s “It’s a Small World” Interactive iOS App

Loading Screen of the "It's a Small World" App © Disney
Loading Screen of the “It’s a Small World” App © Disney

Anybody who knows me personally will know that I am an enormous Disney geek. Interestingly, for me it is not so much about the films as it is the theme parks. There are paintings all over our house of the parks, I have a collection of plates and collectables and several boards full of trading pins. The best present I received this Christmas was a surprise from my husband, a set of figures based on characters who appear only (or mostly) in the parks, the yeti from the Matterhorn, Figment from EPCOT and a Ghost from the Haunted Mansion were included amongst others. So when I heard that Disney were releasing a story app based on one of their most beloved (or possibly infamous) rides, “It’s a Small World” – I absolutely had to try it out.

I will first answer the question that every single person familiar to that ride is currently asking, yes it does include the song. However this is a version of the song that has been toned down to more instrumental and melodic background music, rather than the invasive song well known to Disney park patrons. The music hums away in the background and provides a perfect score to the story without being intrusive. That’s until you get to the very end when the chorus of the original song pipes up on repeat until you hit the menu button and you’re stuck with it in your head for the rest of the day.

All the scenes are beautifully drawn & use vivid colours © Disney
All the scenes are beautifully drawn & use vivid colours © Disney

The story itself is based on the lyrics and take the reader on a journey through a series of beautiful settings based on different countries and cultures. Each scene is accompanied by a single line from the song and features a variety of interactive elements that can be activated by clicking on parts of the image. Clicking an animal might cause it to make a noise, a boat might sail off across the sea or a child might laugh and blow a kiss. The app automatically pans across the image, however you can use your finger to drag the image back and revisit parts of it. All sorts of countries and cultures are represented from the Arctic to Africa, Japan to London.

The menu screen with spinning wheel to select a scene © Disney
The menu screen with spinning wheel to select a scene © Disney

Inbetween scenes a hot air balloon sails onto the screen to take you on the next stage of the journey as the scene loads. If left alone, the app will automatically work its way through each line/scene of the song, however the menu does give you the option to jump to any you choose through a nicely designed animated scrolling wheel. This can be accessed at any time throughout your journey and also allows you to return to the home page.

The day after I received this app, I switched it on and handed my phone over to my two year old. Despite the app being rated 4+, my son found it easy to get to grips with; he was quickly poking at things and getting dogs barking and bagpipes playing (in case it isn’t obvious – this is NOT a quiet app.) I do have to admit that the app hasn’t held his attention for long, however I can honestly say that I think this is simply a phase he is going through as none of his previously favoured apps have been left running very long lately either. Because of the auto scrolling, he was able to move through the different screens without needing my help and if his attention span was longer, he could easily have worked through the full app.

The word "laugh" appears as you tap a laughing girl © Disney
The word “laugh” appears as you tap a laughing girl © Disney

The app would also work well as a simple short story book for an older child, each line is spoken aloud so no reading skills are required, however the words are printed on screen for those learning to read. Do remember however that as this story is based on song lyrics, there are not that many lines so the app’s value as a “learning to read” tool is limited. Certain characters also produce a written word that relates to the action they are performing when they are tapped, these are simple words such as “give” and “laugh.” The app contains one other small feature, a karaoke screen which sings the chorus with the words up on screen and a traditional karaoke bouncing along on top of them. This is the same screen that appears at the end of the story but it can be accessed directly from the main menu. I suggest you don’t tell your kids about it if you ever want to get the song out of your head.

As a Disney park enthusiast, I thoroughly enjoyed this app and would happily sit and watch the story unfold even by myself. I would love to see a range of these interactive story apps based on other Disney park rides – the Haunted Mansion being my number one desire – and if this is the quality benchmark then I’d be very happy indeed. If you’re not a Disney fan this app won’t win you over, however given the subject I feel that an app like this was always aimed at existing enthusiasts rather than a more casual market. All together this is a beautiful looking app with a simple interface and lots of fun to be had within, please make more Disney.

“It’s a Small World” is available for iPhone and iPad for $3.99/£2.49. A copy of this app was provided free for review.


Relive the Early Years With John Booth’s Collect All 21! Memoirs of a Star Wars Geek – The First 30 Years

John Booth, fantastic writer and good friend of mine, takes us back 30 years, sharing his myriad and detailed memories of being an early Star Wars fan in his book, Collect All 21! Memoirs of a Star Wars Geek – The First 30 Years. John has been a Star Wars geek from the very beginning, being the right age when the original movies came out. At one point more recently, he decided to write down all of his recollections surrounding any part of Star Wars history, and has collected them into a fantastic book.

Each chapter in the book is a bit of a vignette, with plenty of detail and some stream of consciousness, as memories usually have. In between are sections entitled Proof of Purchase, each one a much shorter vignette, often addressing a more tangible memory of an item, such as an action figure or a cake. As I measure life by where I lived and by the birth of my children, John includes Star Wars events and dates in his life measurements.

John’s book inspires others to share their Star Wars memories as well. I, myself, was only four years old in 1977, so my memories are fewer than John’s, who is a couple of years older. But I still have my original Star Wars trading cards (with the blue border) and a few of the Return of the Jedi ones (with the red border), and still hold out hope that my R2-D2 action figure will turn up in a box. I also remember the month when I was a kid that HBO played Star Wars on frequent repeat, and I saw it probably 20 times that month. That contributed to the fact that I can practically recite the entire movie, even to this day.

John is masterful in recreating how it felt for him (and countless other Star Wars fans that were kids at the time) when he coveted that new Star Wars guy, or when he arranged his sets, or when the next movie was coming out and the anticipation was killing him. John can paint a picture with his words that pulls you into the story instantly.

John’s childhood interpretation of Marvel Comics Star Wars issue #5. Photo used with permission.

Obviously the book has a star destroyer full of Star Wars references, but I love how he also inserts them when you aren’t expecting it: “They were just swordfighters, no matter how clumsy and random they thought blasters were.”

Throughout the book, John talks about his friends and classmates by first names only. We have no idea exactly who his first-named friends were. But we aren’t meant to, and it isn’t important to the story. John is just letting us into his childhood, to help us relive our own, or to see what we missed by being born at the wrong time. Or for those who perhaps weren’t lucky enough to get into Star Wars the first time around.

Throughout the book, John inserts his own form of humor, which only adds to the pleasure of reliving Star Wars memories. John is very clever and this comes out in his writing.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when he includes his recollections of writing with a friend a continuation of the story following Return of the Jedi. That story is actually incredibly creative and certainly no more cheesy than the original storylines. I wish John and his friend had done more with it at the time.

It was great to learn more about the movies themselves, especially The Empire Strikes Back, through the eyes of a child, including the impressions and some misconceptions that come with being so young. Personally, I only actually remember seeing Return of the Jedi in the theater, but I know I saw them all. I had just been too young to remember the occasions of seeing the others. (Of course my family made up for that with countless Star Wars movie retrospectives at home when I was a kid. Thanks, Mom!)

John with the Death Star. Photo used with permission.

Some of John’s writing stirred memories in me that I’d only just forgotten, buried just under the surface. One example was about Luke’s fight with Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi where Luke cut off Vader’s hand, and then the camera showed Luke looking at his own gloved hand. Like John, I, too, thought that somehow Vader’s hand had ended up on Luke!

John’s conversational style in this book helps along the feeling that you are reminiscing together, that he’s telling you a story while being in the same room. You can feel his enthusiasm coming through.

A little over halfway through the book, the story takes a more serious turn, still telling John’s Star Wars tale but through the eyes of a young adult going through regretful experiences and other events. Star Wars still had an influence on his life at that point, but it had evolved into a slightly different kind of influence. This part was hard for me to read, mostly because I know John personally, and have also had some of my own regretful experiences at that time in my life.

John eventually gets to the prequels and deals with them fairly. They can’t compare to the originals, but they were better than nothing. (Maybe, says me.) In all, the book is a very personal look at one boy/man’s journey through the Star Wars universe.

The book is also available as an ebook, which has plenty of bonus material. In the ebook, after the main narrative, John has included interviews, updates, and extras. John’s writing here is a bit different, though. You get to see his journalistic side, his more polished and less personal side.

Star Wars has always been there for John Booth. Through the good times and the bad, from his youth to adulthood and parenthood. Thanks to John, I was reminded of my own childhood, with our family Star Wars retrospectives, frequent Star Wars cable TV airplay, and continually recited lines.

With Collect All 21!, you get the complete Star Wars memory of one John Booth.

Collect All 21! Memoirs of a Star Wars Geek – The First 30 Years can be gotten as a printed book for $14.95, or now in a special, expanded electronic edition, like I read it, for $7.99 on the Kindle or the Nook. Also, visit the electronic publisher’s page for a link for a free excerpt! Regardless of what method you use to read the book, it is a unique look into the evolving Star Wars universe through the eyes of one who appreciates it immensely. I highly recommend it to anyone who lived through the Star Wars years from the beginning, and to those who wish they did.

Review:The Meowmorphosis by Franz Kafka and Coleridge Cook

A few weeks ago, I received an advanced review copy of The Meowmorphosis, courtesy of Quirk Classics (@quirkbooks).

meow-cover-large-197x300The Meowmorphosis is the latest edition of literary mash-ups published by Quirk Classics. Mashed by Coleridge Cook, a pseudonym, at the base of The Meowmorphosis is Frank Kafka’s Metamorphosis, with additional parts added from the rest of Kafka’s literary works. However, instead of waking up as a bug, the main character, Gregor Samsa, wakes up as a kitten. One would think this would change an otherwise depressing and pathetic story into one with more humor. Well, I suppose that depends on your point of view.

I do not envy anyone who takes on the task of grabbing a piece of what is considered to be influential literature and adding in new elements. It cannot be an easy task. Large portions of The Meowmorphosis were taken directly from The Metamorphosis. The sections which refer to Samsa as a bug were rewritten to ‘kitten’ Samsa. Coleridge managed to do this quite flawlessly.

Normally, I do not like to compare and contrast books for review purposes. That is the type of thing I feel should be reserved for high school and university English Literature courses. However, I cannot help but to do it for this type of book. When I was reading the Austen/Graham-Smith mash-up, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I couldn’t help but think to myself, the entire time I was reading it, “Well, this is quite an interesting literary exercise.” I found myself thinking the exact same thing while reading The Meowmorphosis. It was impossible for me to disengage my academic brain, allowing my leisure brain to be entertained.

Even though I did not enjoy Austen’s original work—I have yet to read one of her books beyond the first chapter or stay awake for more than 20 minutes through one of the movies—I did find the insertion of zombies into the story to be rather drôle. How can one not laugh at the image of the Bennet sisters fighting off hordes of zombies one moment then going back to societal caterwauling the next? I did not find the same humor in The Meowmorphosis. In fact, I found the main character to be even more wretched and pitiful, causing me to sympathize with him to a greater extent. I do not think it helps that I have a huge dislike for cats. I would rather have a pet insect than a cat. To be even more clear about how much I do not like cats, having a cat would be my very last choice for a pet. The exception being worms, but only because I have a true phobia of worms.

A lot of the reasons I do not like cats, Coleridge describes in this book. I think the easiest way to sum it up: Cats are selfish animals, caring only for themselves. They are fickle, flighty, react before thinking, and are the type to rub their rear-end in your face, whilst thinking, “Who’s a pretty hairball?” This puts Samsa’s feline nature at huge odds with Samsa’s human nature; one where he has given up his own wants in order to do right by his family. Throughout both the original and the mash-up, there is a large internal struggle going on within Samsa. He is very much at odds between what are his wants and what is his station in life. I found these struggles to be heightened in the mash-up. For me, it was easier to sympathize with a character trapped in what many consider to be a cute and cuddly animal than one that many consider grotesque.

For me, this was not a fun read. Kafka’s writing style is not one that I enjoy. Because of the style, my English Literature brain would not disengage. Because of my background in Psychology, I couldn’t help but to dissect the character, profiling both him and the original author in the process. I almost felt as if I were back in university. One thing that this book accomplished: It made me want to read the original, which I did at Also, it made me want to find out more about Kafka, as he is not an author we were required to study in school.

Is the book well-written? Yes. Did Coleridge Cook do a good job interweaving his story with Kafka’s original? Yes and quite wonderfully. For me, any failing this book has is only due to personal preferences. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves English Literature. I would recommend this book to anyone who is curious to read another mash-up. Would I recommend this book to someone who is wanting a fun, humorous and light read? That would depend on what your definitions of fun and humor are. As for a light read, there is nothing light about this story, despite the book being 208 pages. The story’s underlying human themes are still dark and morose.

I may not enjoy Kafka’s writing style, however I did enjoy the journey of personal torture taken on by the story.

Am I the Spawn of a Tiger Mother?

My sister Margaret and me, Hong Kong, December 1994. She sported the headphones WAY before iPods made them fashionable! Photo: Patricia Vollmer

Amy Chua’s latest book has certainly been causing quite a stir, hasn’t it?

I’ve come across several opinion and editorial articles on Ms. Chua herself has been making the rounds through the media trying to provide some clarification in the wake of a very controversial Wall Street Journal essay, which brought the world’s attention to the book just before it was published.

As a response to the WSJ article, GeekDad Jonathan Liu weighed in on his personal experiences as an offspring of Chinese immigrant parents, and his take on Amy Chua’s parenting style.

So this past weekend I picked up a copy of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I finished it last night, and boy did it strike a chord with me. Not a “Wow, that’s my life exactly!” chord, but a “Wow, even though I experienced SOME of the Tiger Mother, my Mom balanced it with western methods quite well!” chord. As Jonathan hypothesized in his post, the point of the WSJ article was to generate buzz (which it did), and sell books (which I can attest to after spending $25.95  so I could start reading it right away!). That article was only a small part of her story.  Read the book and you will learn the rest.

The book itself was a fast, surprisingly easy, read.  It took me about four hours total over three days, and I’m not usually a super-fast reader. The book is a succinct chronology of Ms. Chua’s 18 years of parenthood, with some brief family history to set the stage. You learn how she is the daughter of immigrant Chinese parents (Ms. Chua herself is not an immigrant, which to me was ironic), how she “rebelled” against her father by applying to (and getting accepted into) Harvard without his consent, and how she attempted to balance a very busy career while starting a family.

Her stories of how hard she pushed her two daughters are beyond psycho. You’ll want to hate Ms. Chua from the start. You want to call Child Services on her. You want to scream at the book! Her oldest daughter Sophia takes the pressure pretty well, but you find out that her youngest daughter Louisa, or Lulu for short, was the strong-willed one, and towards the end you see how Ms. Chua has no choice but to relent if she was going to save her relationship with Lulu.

On the other hand, you’ll be awe-inspired by the stories of how prodigious her daughters were at music. They won numerous competitions, and were invited to play concerts worldwide. The oldest daughter played piano at Carnegie Hall at age 14, the youngest daughter was invited to study violin with a Julliard professor at age 11. While there was likely some natural talent there, Ms. Chua’s incredible drive to not only make her daughters practice practice practice, but stand by their sides during the practice session, and develop practice session outlines and drills was pretty amazing. Would I do it with my own kids? No, not at all! I guess I’m too lazy. But despite how psycho I thought she was, I had to admit that took a lot of motherly dedication.

I recommend reading this book to get the full gist of Ms. Chua’s journey through parenthood. The media blitz isn’t quite doing it justice. While you’ll be in shock with much of it, there are several laugh-out-loud anecdotes, and in the end you are hopeful that she continues to accept “Western” parenting little by little.

I think she’s trying to make two things clear. First, all-out total “Chinese parenting” isn’t always the best method, especially in America. Americans aren’t wired to be automatons. Secondly, she contends that there are many positive facets of “Chinese parenting,” such as instilling a good work ethic, helping your child realize his/her full potential, and teaching children the importance of respect for their elders. If you’re a parent, reading this book will force you to explore your own upbringing, and what ideas you have for bringing up your own kids.

On a personal level, I want to share what I was expecting going into reading the book, and what I came away with.

I thought this would be like reading a book about my mother, and the way she brought me up. Like Ms. Chua’s daughter Sophia, I’m also the oldest daughter to a Chinese mother and a Caucasian father. Like Sophia I have a younger sister. Both my sister and I were also musicians; I played the violin and my sister played the cello.

After reading this book, I think my mother raised my sister and me in a decent balance of “Eastern” and “Western” (by Ms. Chua’s standards) styles of parenting.

Obviously things weren’t perfect. When I began to exhibit signs of being left-handed as a toddler, Mom wanted to “train” me with my right hand. She apparently was nervous about my being different, being a standout. Perhaps she was nervous about teaching me to eat with utensils, chopsticks, or learn to knit/crochet (her favorite hobby!). My father, one of the most sensible, reasonable people I know, convinced Mom to let me instead perfect being left-handed. For some reason, I play sports and my violin right-handed just fine.

Mom’s idea of keeping my sister and me out of trouble was to keep us (in her words) “busy busy busy.”  Music, sports, Girl Scouts. She was unfailingly strict; doing our best was expected of us always. That just went without saying. Straight A’s were expected (although I only ever earned straight As once in my life). I’m still like that now with myself. On the other hand, I was never punished for bringing home bad grades. (I knew several non-Tiger-parented kids who were!).

Similar to the book, I seemed to be the daughter who abided with whatever was cast upon me, layering on the sports, music, grades, and social life. If I complained, my parents’ steadfast stance was usually enough for me. I was good at violin, but I’d never have considered myself great. I’m incredibly grateful to my parents for pushing me to excel at violin, but not fanatically so. Parents SHOULD wring every ounce of potential they can out of their kids. My parents worked very hard to make sure I had the best music teachers, and drove me all over the state of Virginia for assorted auditions and performances. While I chose to pursue science instead of music in college, I’m grateful I was good enough at both science and music to have that choice in front of me at the time.

My sister was the rebellious one. If I was considered “good” at the violin, she was exceptional at the cello. She attended Virginia’s Governor’s School for the Arts, and played for the Guam Symphony Orchestra as a high school student in Guam. I can’t say whether it’s a consequence of her having to move from one end of the earth to the other not once but twice during high school, but her rebellion was met with less resistance. The logistics of traveling to/from potential college auditions from Guam was near impossible, and she ended up heading in a different direction than music after she graduated from high school.

In contrast to the book, my sister and I were allowed to make numerous choices with what direction we wanted to take with our music. The same went for many of the major decisions in our lives. Whatever choices we made, our parents insisted we performed to our maximum potential. They set the stage for us to succeed on many fronts: athletically, academically and with good common sense.

So…am I the spawn of a Tiger Mother? I think I am, but mildly so. I look back on my childhood positively, and I’ve found that I’m tapping into some of my parents’ tactics with my own kids. Thanks Mom and Dad!

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

Photo: Andrea Schwalm

I cannot think of Karen Armstrong without then mentally reciting the opening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

And then, on Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would get nailed to anything.

Armstrong really does just want us to be nice to each other, though.

A failed Roman Catholic nun and English Professor, she is best known as an author, comparative religious historian, and recipient of the 2008 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Prize for innovative ideas. The TED Prize came with a $100,000 monetary award and Armstrong used those funds to create the Charter for Compassion, an online document calling for people of all faiths (or no faith) to “restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life” by reaffirming the golden rule, Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you.

“Not simply a statement of principle, the Charter is above all a summons to creative, practical and sustained action to meet the political, moral, religious, social and cultural problems of our time.”

Intimate yet awe-inspiring: The Celeste Bartos Forum in the Stephen Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm

In short, the Charter is a crowd-sourced, online  think tank aimed at reframing any ideological extremism that ignores “the divine in each of us.”

Through its’ “Learn,” “Share,” and “Act” subheadings, we are all invited to affirm the Charter, share our thoughts and success stories around compassion, and support others as we work to develop our own personal senses of empathy “all day, every day.”

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the worst financial crisis since The Great Depression, and the continued social fragmentation of both family and community, Armstrong believes that our  best hope for world peace–and individual happiness– lies in “dethroning ourselves from the center of our world” and taking care of each other…something that sounds logical though simplistic to say aloud and that is borne out by emerging science on happiness, but actually requires the intentional, life-long effort of the entire human community to achieve.

On Tuesday, January 11, I saw Karen Armstrong speak about her new book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, at the New York Public Library’s Celeste Bartos Forum on 40th Street and Fifth Avenue. (PS: Her talk was part of a larger series of discussions, lectures, and classes on the three major world faiths continuing at the library through February, and coincides with a free, online and real-world exhibition entitled Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam showcasing holy relics and codices from all three traditions.)

For those who have seen Armstrong’s 2008 TED Talk, this most-recent talk did not cover a great deal of new ground. Once again, she discussed how the idea of compassion, integral to all humanity, evolved separately in all of the worlds cultures, from Confucius’ concept of shu (consideration) and the Buddha’s call for maitri (loving kindness) and karuna (“the resolve to lift all creatures from their pain”), through to Jewish scholar Rabbi Hillel’s summation of the Torah, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor…the rest is commentary.”

Question and Answer Session With Guy on Right Coming Out of Nowhere. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm

However, Armstrong wants to do more than simply rehash history or discuss lofty ideals, she wants to continue to provide a concrete action plan for change. Her new book, The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, is her action plan for “being the change we want to see in the world,” and like all effective “12-Step” programs, it is set up so that the individual does not have to work alone.

“After all, we come together when we work together,” she explained.

After purchasing and reading the book, individuals are encouraged to further process and internalize its ideas by starting a reading group, joining monthly, hosted discussions on Facebook, and sharing their commitment to “activating the golden rule” (as well as any stories that result) on the Charter for Compassion’s website. Additionally, because Armstrong (who personally ascribes to no faith tradition) believes that religion can be both a source of close-minded, violent fundamentalism and a wellspring for transcendent hope, the book also includes a lengthy “Suggestions for Further Reading” appendix designed to provide historical background and address issues of scriptural interpretation.

Armstrong closed her talk with these words:

“Let us care for all creatures as a mother does her only child.”

That one sentence provided me with a perfect perspective from which to begin my own work.

My children are in their teen/pre-teen years and even on a quiet day, there is still a good amount of spirited debate that takes place in this house over chores, homework, TV rights and family obligations. Additionally, despite my intention to adopt a patient, wise, guitar-slinging Maria-Von-Trapp parenting style, it turns out that I can lose my patience more quickly than I’d like–particularly now that I am working again after 14 years as a stay-at-home parent…

At least once a week, my children and I will have to sit down, apologize to each other for becoming loud, and try to figure out how to handle whatever the conflict du jour might be. However, even before the post-mortem begins, while the stomping and ranting (and emphatic counter-wiping) is in full fury, I know that I do not want any harm to come to my children. I love them. What I want desperately at those moments is a bridge: I want us to listen to each other, respect each other, support each other. I am bonded to my children so that even as they jump on my last nerve, I am looking for that teachable moment, that mutual understanding–for all involved parties.

I want to continue to hone that evolving emotional mechanism and bring it to all of my relationships. That is why I am reading Karen Armstrong’s book and planning on participating in the online discussions…and it is why I believe that you should, too.

What’s To Read After Harry Potter?

Book covers: Scholastic Press. Mashup: Kate Miller.

Readers, I’ve got something explosive to say. OK, here goes (nervous throat-clearing sound):

I just don’t like Harry Potter.

I don’t loathe Harry Potter, I just don’t see the magnificence and originality that others do. The first book left me cold, and even my boys lost interest at around book three.

There, I’ve said it. Please don’t yell at me or arrest me. I’m just speaking out for a tiny, overwhelmed minority in America. We Potterphobes cower in our closets.

So why am I posting on our Harry Potter week? Just to be a downer? To be the critic everyone hates? No! My job here is to recommend an alternative series, good for Potterphobes as well as Potterphiles who are ready for fresh material.

And my recommendation is – drumroll, please — the Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins. My older son and I picked up the first book a couple of years ago when I was still reading aloud to him. We buzzed through the next four books with the urgency of addicts. Like Harry Potter, the protagonist of this series is a boy with a mysterious destiny who moves between the real world and an equally real alternate world. But the resemblance ends there.

Gregor is a smart and troubled 11-year-old New York kid who inadvertently discovers the Underland, a human civilization living in enormous caverns deep beneath the city. There, humans uneasily co-exist with species of rats, bats, spiders, mice, cockroaches, and other creatures, all grown to enormous size. These creatures are also highly intelligent, armed to the teeth, and as flawed and unpredictable as humans. It’s a blazingly original landscape. Shifting alliances and misunderstandings propagate the plots, and we watch as Gregor navigates. He’s decent. And conflicted. It’s awesome.

The books thrum with themes of war and peace. One plot closely parallels Hitler’s rise to power and the Holocaust. Gregor is strategically placed to answer some of those old philosophical chestnuts you toss around in college: “It’s 1939. You have a loaded gun and a clear shot at Hitler. What do you do?” Or, more to the point, what would Gregor do? (WWGD?) These questions sparked lively discussions with my son, for which I’ll always be grateful to Suzanne Collins.

So if you liked Harry Potter — or even if you didn’t – you might give Gregor a try. Oh, and when you do, let me know what you think of Ripred, a vicious and brilliant rat with traitorous tendencies. We adore him.

GeekMom Holiday Gift Guide #1: Books

Regardless of what holidays you celebrate, the end-of-year festivities are right around the corner. If you choose to purchase gifts online, you need to order then in advance to allow for shipping time, backorders, and comparison shopping. We at GeekMom are here to help you with ideas for anyone on your gift list, from babies to grownups. We’ll be running a series of half a dozen or so posts, sorted by category or age group, with suggested gifts this holiday season. Many of our writers have contributed to our series of gift guides, so the ideas run the gamut from popular bestsellers to more obscure, interesting gifts with which you may not be familiar. Chances are there will be something that appeals to you. Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments below.

In this, the first post of the first series of GeekMom holiday gift guides, we start out with books. Books are a gift that can appeal to anyone: babies, toddlers, young children, older children, and of course adults. Books are always a great holiday gift!

Geek Dad by Ken Denmead
Written by our own publisher, Ken Denmead, Geek Dad is filled with geeky projects that you can do with your children. Some are fast and simple, some are more complicated. From binary clocks to aerial photography, this book will fill your quality time with the kids with useful and fun activities.

Image: Houghton Mifflin

Pocketful of Posies and Felt Wee Folk: Enchanting Projects by Salley Mavor
Combining traditional nursery rhymes and breathtaking felt and stitching, Pocketful of Posies is a special way to share well-known and also much more obscure nursery rhymes with your kids. You can even take turns reading the poems with kids old enough to read. By the same author and artist, Felt Wee Folk: Enchanting Projects teaches you how to make your own felt and stitching projects.

Image: Andrews McMeel Publishing

Sneaky Uses Books by Cy Tymony
Sneaky Science Tricks, The Sneaky Book for Boys and The Sneaky Book for Girls are books filled with fun and often scientific projects for kids, or for parents and kids to do together. There is plenty of overlap between books, but each one is tailored to a specific audience. Sneaky Science Tricks teaches scientific principles to do cool tricks and activities. The Sneaky Book for Boys focuses more on boys’ natural tendency to want to be sneaky, detailing science projects and teaching about animals and how to be resourceful. The Sneaky Book for Girls also covers scientific principles, but additionally includes projects such as crafts, magic, and spy stuff. Author Cy Tymony has written many other Sneaky books as well.

Image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Built to Last (and other books by David Macaulay)
Remember the Pyramid, Cathedral, and Castle books? They’ve been around for years and have inspired many students and teachers to learn about history and start their own building projects. Now David Macaulay has combined Castle, Cathedral, and the newer Mosque, totally redoing them for this well-packaged release. Learn how they built these magnificent structures through fictional stories based on the time periods. While you’re at it, check out David Macaulay’s many other books, such as Mill, City, The New Way Things Work, and The Way We Work.

Image: W. W. Norton & Company

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) by Richard Feynman
A timeless classic, this autobiographical look into a fascinating physicist’s life is accessible to scientists and non-scientists alike. You’ll learn, you’ll laugh, and you’ll appreciate a kind of work that most of us don’t do on a daily basis. But most of all, Richard Feynman is an interesting and intriguing personality. This series of anecdotes from Feynman’s life is worth a read and a re-read. Then share your copy with other family members and friends, and discussion will ensue.

Photo: National Geographic

National Geographic Atlas of the World
Newly updated, this most recent version of the National Geographic Atlas of the World is a gorgeous, useful, and clear representation of Earth on paper. It also includes many pages on the cultural and political geography of our planet, and even includes maps of the deep sea floor, the moon, Mars, the solar system, and even the galaxy. An essential reference for every home.

Image: Yale University Press

A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich
This gem of a book is perfect for introducing your children to the history of the world. Its narrative thread takes you from before ancient history up until World War II, and was written specifically for children. Each chapter deals with a different part of history or part of the world, and tells the story in an engaging way that is both accessible to your children and not condescending. It was originally written in 1935 by Austrian-born Gombrich, who spent much of his life in the United Kingdom. He updated the book before his death in 2001. There are many references to days gone by and it is very UK-centric, but it’s such a delightful find for teaching your kids about the history of the western world. The gorgeous woodcuts that accompany each chapter add to your enjoyment. This is a book that you will want to read aloud to your children, since it is as much for the grown-ups who read it as for the children who listen.

Photo: Abrams Books

I Lego N.Y. by Christoph Niemann
For the Lego brick lover in the family who needs to get something beyond just boxes of new bricks this year, a good pick might be a clever book called I Lego N.Y., by Christoph Niemann. While living in Berlin, Mr. Niemann longed for his beloved New York City and began building small, clever vignettes from his son’s Lego bricks. The book has the expected, like the Empire State Building, but also the ordinary, like a man standing on a subway platform. Some scenes cleverly use only a small handful of bricks. An inspiring book for any Lego creator, big or small.

Image: Nathan Sawaya

The Art of the Brick by Nathan Sawaya
When the little (or big!) Lego geek in your family has built every building, spaceship, and robot imaginable, maybe it’s time to branch out. There is no better place to get inspiration than Nathan Sawaya, the world famous Lego brick sculptor. He’s created a book overflowing with pictures of his most amazing projects. It’s called The Art Of The Brick: The Pictorial, and it does not disappoint. From page one to page 68, this book is packed with inspiring pictures. Broken down into categories, like portraits, novelty pieces, large sculptures and museum works, Mr. Sawaya pairs his pictures with fascinating factoids about how some of his pieces came to be. It’s a must have for any serious Lego lover.

Photo: Cartwheel Books

Star Wars ABC by Scholastic
Do you need a gift idea for a new GeekMom or GeekDad who loves all things Star Wars? Or maybe a certain geek baby you know has an empty spot on her bookcase that would welcome a board book called Star Wars ABC. The pictures are fun, scenes taken straight from the movies, and each letter mimics something related to the picture (the E for Ewok is fuzzy). Big brothers and sisters might even volunteer to read this fun book to the little ones in the house.

Photo: Workman Publishing

Star Wars: A Scanimation Book: 12 Iconic Scenes from a Galaxy Far, Far Away.. by Rufus Butler Seder
If you love Star Wars, you might also love Star Wars: A Scanimation Book: 12 Iconic Scenes from a Galaxy Far, Far Away.. where scenes from the movie come to life when the book is turned from side to side. Another pick that big kids just might love as much as the toddlers.

Photo: Judy Berna

Standing Small: A Celebration of 30 Years of the Lego Minifigure by Nevin Martel
If you have a Lego fan on your list you have to see this amazing book, called Standing Small: A Celebration of 30 Years of the Lego Minifigure, by Nevin Martell. Filled with fun facts (Which figure had the first eyelashes? When were females introduced?) as well as pages full of pictures showcasing the hundreds of different variations of those intriguing little people, this book will keep Lego fans, young and old, busy for hours. It is sold as part of a set, packaged with The Lego Book (a wonderful book of Lego history), but is entertaining enough to stand on its own. The set can be purchased for just over $25.00.

Image: HarperCollins

The Father Christmas Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien
It’s hard to decide what’s more thrilling about this book: discovering a Tolkien book that you never knew existed, or the hand-lettered missives inside, their envelopes bearing this real, if undeniably magical, address — “The Tolkiens, 20 Northmoor Road, Oxford, England.” Beginning in 1933, Tolkien’s children received hand-written illustrated letters from Father Christmas. The book compiles the letters, which share a certain similarity in prose style with the writings of Tolkien himself, with illustrations the North Pole and even the fanciful postage drawn on the envelopes. The letters relate the ancient history of the polar elves and their battles with marauding goblins, and derive much comic relief from the well-meaning North Polar Bear, Father Christmas’ helper, who unfailingly manages to wreak havoc on the holiday.

Photo: EyeThink

EyeThink Board Books
Just when you think the term board books should be changed to bored books along comes this exciting new variation. From the people at EyeThink, these books come to life, with pictures that seem to move when you tilt the book from side to side. There are three variations, Gallop, Waddle, and Swing, and they retail for $12.95.

Photo: Kid-O

Things That Go Wooden Book by Kid-O
Somewhere between book and toy are Kid-O’s wonderful wooden books. Things That Go is a wordless book featuring lovely, simple art of vehicles printed on maple wood, great for those kids who like to rip and chew their books. Also available: Animal Homes.

Stay tuned next week for our second holiday gift guide!

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Geek Author Ethan Gilsdorf Talks Names, Games, and Giveaways!

DSC_0203-EthanEthan Gilsdorf is the celebrated geek author of the very awesome book, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. It’s the sort of book that, if you’re a lifelong geek like me, you can’t put down. The book chronicles Ethan’s life as a young geek, his escape from his roots, and then his return. From Tolkien to tabletop roleplaying, from Boston to New Zealand, the book is a pitch-perfect account of one geek’s journey in a very, very wide world.

F_final_FFGG_front_jacketI met Ethan earlier this year at PAX:East, where we sat on a panel together. At that point, his book was just in hardcover: but lo! It has landed in paperback!

So, in celebration this great book going paperback, I asked Ethan to do an interview for us here at GeekMom. And since he’s done quite a few interviews, I didn’t want it to be the same dull questions as usual. So we delved a little deeper into the depths of geekdom to tease out some unusual answers.

Hark! There is more, indeed.

In addition to the interview, Ethan is also giving away 5 signed copies of his book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks to our readers.

How do you win this coveted book, you ask? Ethan, among other things, is also a poet. So I thought it’d be cool if you could give us a verse or two. Be it a free verse, a limerick, a sonnet, a haiku, or a villanelle, on the geeky subject of your choosing (think “An Ode to Harry Potter” or the “Ballad of Bilbo”). Just put your entries in the comments below and we’ll choose the best five entries by Friday!

Good luck, and geek on!

Ethan Gilsdorf Answers GeekMom’s Curious Questions

GeekMom: You’re playing D&D. Your first character choice?
Ethan Gilsdorf: First, a caveat: I come from the dark ages of AD&D, back when we covered our holy texts (the Monster Manual, et al) with brown shopping bag paper and we didn’t have funky classes like Avenger, Invoker, or College Professor, or races like Minotaur, Shardmind, or SpongeBob. No siree! We walked to wizard school through 3 feet of snow and we didn’t have d20s, only d2s and d3s. But to the question: I have always preferred the sneakier, tree-huggier classes like ranger or thief. As far as races, I go hobbit (ooops, silly me, I mean “halfling”) or half-elf. I guess I have a schizophrenic Aragorn … no … Bilbo! fetish. I like the idea of stealth rather than brawn, and I really dig the dark-and-stormy loner types with haunted bloodlines.

GM:  The Hobbit movie. Is it going to happen? Your thoughts on PJ vs. Del Toro, and what is in store for the franchise?
EG: The news on this darned movie changes daily. Now that GDT is out, at least those who worried he’d Hellboy it up too much or front-load it with too much action and creatures and special effects, should be breathing a sigh of relief. GDT is a wonderful director, don’t get me wrong. But there’s some solace in knowing that PJ will be at the helm (at least that’s the last news) and the visual and directorial style will be consistent with LOTR. Now the bigger question is whether The Hobbit will be filmed in New Zealand or not, due to, first, labor/union issues, and now tax break issues, and whether Warner Bros. will want to make a film in a country where the actors threatened to strike. There have been huge rallies in NZ to keep the film there. As I write this, Warners is reportedly headed to NZ to meet with PJ’s company Wingnut Films to move the production offshore. (Weirdly, Facebook pulled a “Keep the Hobbit film shoot in New Zealand” page after it got 10,000 fans — is Facebook in cahoots with Time/Warner?). Tempers are flaring and folks are upset. It’s unfortunate, but since everyone involved stands to make a crapload of money, the film will get made, if not in NZ then the UK or Eastern Europe. (Editor’s note: the film will officially be made in NZ.)

GM: Do you think giving your child a geeky name (Zelda, Frodo, Superman) is a good thing, or a bad thing? Are parents setting their kids up for a geeky upbringing, or will this overt geek indoctrination end up backfiring?
EG: Will naming your spawn Arwen, Neo, Buffy or Leia condemn them to endless torment? I doubt it. There’s already a trend for crazy non-geek mash-up names that seem equally ridiculous, i.e., Breckin? Chance? Maxigan? Attica? Not much goofier than Samwise. Besides, by the time your babies are in high school, Lord of the Rings will be required reading, and they’ll be able to study French, Latin and Na’vi.

GM: What are your geeky black holes? Any fandoms or pastimes you just aren’t into/don’t get/wish you could like but don’t? (Me: Dr. Who, for instance)
EG: One problem is I don’t watch TV as much as I used to, so I’ve missed a lot of the recent shows like Battlestar Galactica and Lost (I know, it’s embarrassing to admit! They’re on my list to get on DVD!). And in terms of gaming, I don’t own Xbox or Wii, so I don’t have much first-person experience with the most ground-breaking games like BioShock or Gears of War. What can I say? My hand-eye was always pathetic (although I’m pretty good at old-school arcade games like Galaga and Robotron 2084). I never got into anime or manga, either (but weirdly loved “Star Blazers” as a kid). Like you, I never connected with Dr. Who, despite it airing each night on PBS between Julia Child and MacNeil/Lehrer. Those BBC special effects were just too cheesy a kid who was spoiled on ILM-quality effects. I’m too old for Joss Whedon fandom and wish I had gotten into Magic: The Gathering. But I do my best to keep up and make sure my black holes aren’t too deep. Lately, I’ve been diving into steampunk for an article I’m writing for the Boston Globe. I even attended a steampunk LARP. That was a hoot.

GM: Gilsdorf. Seems like the name has some geeky undertones. I think Gil-Galad, and dwarf. Were you just predestined?
EG: On my book tour, I’ve gotten a zillion comments from people asking me if my name is real. Yep, I say, my parents actually named me this tongue-twister “Ethan Gilsdorf.”. People wonder if it’s Elvish. Or Elvis. At the time, the name Ethan was about as rare as orc teeth. Friends in high school called me Nahte Frodslig.

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